Briefing

Biden's Bolsonaro dilemma

The former far-right president of Brazil is camped out in Florida following a capital assault in his name. Should Biden send him packing?

Thousands of supporters of far-right former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brazil's three branches of government on Jan. 8, vandalizing and looting the Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace. Brazilian authorities arrested about 1,500 rioters over the next 48 hours and said they plan to prosecute at least 1,000 of them. But the former president this mob was rioting for was not in Brasilia, the capital, with them — or even in Brazil. 

Bolsonaro spent the last two days of his presidency and first week of 2023 in Florida, where he arrived on Dec. 30. It's not clear when — or if — he plans to leave.

His successor, President Inácio Lula da Silva, and other Brazilian officials blame Bolsonaro's baseless claims of election fraud for inciting the attack on Brazil's government, but he has not yet been charged in connection with the assault. There have been rumblings from Brazilian officials and U.S. Democrats for President Biden to kick Bolsonaro out of the U.S. and back to Brazil, however. What are Biden's options, and which should he choose?

What is Bolsonaro doing in Florida?

The recently unelected president has been staying in a house owned by Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter José Aldo da Silva Oliveira in a gated community off the highway to Disney World outside Orlando. He greets Brazilian expats outside the house and has been photographed shopping at the local grocery store and, in his last lunch as president, dining by himself at an Orlando-area KFC. 

On Dec. 9, he checked into an Orlando-area hospital with abdominal discomfort he linked to a 2018 stabbing attack.

Otherwise, it isn't clear what brought him to the U.S. or what his future plans may be. But Florida "has long served as a haven for foreign leaders escaping political or legal turmoil at home," The Washington Post reports. "Over the last century, strongmen and former leaders from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Peru and Bolivia have relocated to the state, often buying property and seamlessly blending in with other expats from Latin and South America, some until their final days."

Should Biden give him the boot?

If Brazil files charges against Bolsonaro — for the Jan. 8 insurrection or one of the other alleged crimes prosecutors are investigating him over — Biden would probably try to comply. But some Democrats want him to be more proactive.

"Bolsonaro should not be in Florida" and "the United States should not be a refuge for this authoritarian who has inspired domestic terrorism," Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) told CNN. "The U.S. must cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro in Florida," tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). 

Bolsonaro may also run afoul of immigration laws. It isn't clear what kind of visa he traveled to the U.S. on, but there's speculation it was an A-1 visa for diplomats and heads of state. 

"If an A visa holder is no longer engaged in official business on behalf of that government, it is incumbent on that visa holder to depart the U.S., or to request a change to another immigration status within 30 days," State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday, speaking (more or less) theoretically. "If an individual has no basis on which to be in the United States, an individual is subject to removal by the Department of Homeland Security."

Could Biden just deport Bolsonaro?

Yes. "The Biden administration could immediately revoke his visa," Fabio de Sa e Silva, a lawyer and professor of Brazilian studies at the University of Oklahoma, told the Post. "There is no need for any formal procedure or formal request from the Brazilian government or any authority. It's entirely within the discretion of the U.S. administration."

"There's nothing that prevents Biden from saying to Bolsonaro, 'You have to be out in 24 hours,'" agreed former U.S. Ambassador John Feeley. But Bolsonaro could also drag out the process. Panama asked the U.S. to extradite former President Ricardo Martinelli in 2015, and Interpol issued an arrest warrant in 2016, but he wasn't extradited to Panama until 2018, Feeley told NPR. He was acquitted and is now the frontrunner in the 2024 election.

Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly in New York, told the Post he thinks Bolsonaro would likely try to claim exile, and when Biden said no, he'd try to keep his case in court until after the 2024 election. "If Interpol is after him, I don't think Joe Biden's America would shelter him," he said. "But Ron DeSantis's America might." 

Is there a reason Biden should leave him be?

"A Biden decision to keep Bolsonaro in the U.S. might be less of a political decision than a safety one: Bolsonaro's return could spark more violence," NPR reports

And there's always the chance Bolsonaro could just leave on his own, as he told CNN he might do after his latest gastrointestinal problem. 

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